By Dr. Gonul Tol
The release of last week’s UN Palmer Report, assessing Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara and five other ships carrying aid to Gaza, sparked outrage in Turkey. Many criticized the report’s alleged bias, and claimed it failed to provide a credible legal analysis of the Mavi Marmara incident in which nine Turkish citizens were shot to death by Israeli commandos, some at close range and from behind. Still angry with Israel’s refusal to apologize for its actions, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, suspended all military agreements with Israel, and announced that the Turkish navy would strengthen its presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey also stated it would work to mobilize the UN General Assembly to bring the issue before the International Court of Justice and would support legal action against Israel undertaken by the families of the Mavi Marmara victims.
At face value, Turkey’s reaction appears to be a reckless decision to throw a strategically beneficial relationship with Israel to the wind, abandoning “realpolitik” for “moralpolitik.” Turkey’s five-point strategy led to charges that Turkey’s ruling party is anti-Semitic, and also appeared to underscore a new Turkish policy priority – the protection of Muslim neighbors whom Ankara perceives as unjustly beleaguered. But Turkey’s actions in fact reveal a far more complex and pragmatic foreign policy strategy than its reaction to the Palmer Report suggests.
On the same day that the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared Turkey’s measures against Israel, he announced that Turkey would install a radar system designed by the United States as part of a new NATO shield against a missile attack in Europe. The deployment of the early warning radar in Turkey is allegedly aimed at preventing potential threats from Iran against Europe. But in reality, the shield will be more effective at protecting Israeli citizens from the threat of Iranian missiles, which analysts say do not to have the range to strike Europe.
The timing of the move is notable. Fraying relations with Israel after the flotilla crisis and Turkey’s “de-alignment” on the Iranian nuclear question have led some to conclude that Turkey is shifting the axis of its traditionally Western-oriented foreign policy. Turkey’s decision to broadcast the installation of the radar system on the same day it announced its measures against Israel was an attempt to prevent such criticism. In addition, the Turkish leadership, which was attacked domestically for its decision to deploy the radar system, demonstrated a willingness to go along with its NATO partners, despite local reservations. In agreeing to provide Israel with a shield against Iranian threats, Turkey signaled that it sees its national interest aligning more with the West than with Iran, contrary to what some Israeli pundits have posited.
Turkey’s response to the Palmer Report is an attempt to clarify its foreign policy strategy, which has been clouded by its initial reluctance to side with protesters in Libya and Syria. Turkey wants to demonstrate that it is not turning its back on its Western allies as some in Western capitals fear. Rather it is balancing strategic interests with an idealism that Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has made clear is an important element of Turkey’s foreign policy strategy, as demonstrated by its demand for an end to the Gaza blockade. Turkey views its conduct of foreign policy as a balance between diplomacy and hard power to pursue its interests, both moral and geopolitical. The actions it has undertaken in response to the release of the Palmer report and Israel’s refusal to apologize simply confirm Turkey’s independence in its foreign policy. It seeks neither to make friends nor enemies in the region, but rather to remain flexible enough to respond to changing regional dynamics, while also being true to its principles.
Dr. Gonul Tol is the Director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.